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Contra Costa supervisor field grows … or not

A week before the March 7 filing deadline, Antioch School Board Trustee Gary Agopian pulled papers today to run against incumbent Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover.

Agopian is a vocal critic of the county’s aborted look at building a state prison, or re-entry facility, on one of five sites including a parcel in Antioch. He just told Times reporter Ryan Huff that he literally decided Thursday to run.

But Agopian’s entrance into the race does raise the question: What happened to Antioch Councilman Jim Davis? He was poised to announce his candidacy in the supervisor’s race a week ago but never did it. He even came into the newspaper office for a new mugshot. (That’s Davis on the right but that’s not his newspaper photo.)

Also running against Glover is Oakley Planning Commissioner Erik Nunn, who ran for the seat in 2004. Another man, Donald Parscal, pulled papers but he has no political experience, so we’ll see if he ends up on the ballot.

As for speculation about the other two Contra Costa County supervisor seats, there was no sign as of Friday afternoon of Democrat Steve Filson. (Pictured on below on the immediate right.) He’s contemplating a run against incumbent Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho and her challenger, Assemblyman Guy Houston. (He terms out this year.)

There’s also talk around town that Martinez Councilman Mike Menesini will jump into the race and against incumbent Supervisor GayleUilkema.

Oh man, she would really hate that.

FYI, Here’s Agopian’s press release:

Antioch school board member Gary Agopian took out papers today to run for County Supervisor in the 5th Supervisor District currently held by Federal Glover.

Agopian said, “The straw that broke the camel’s back in deciding to run is the Antioch prison issue and what happened at the last Board of Supervisors meeting.  Our supervisor voted for the Antioch location and supported it until the public pressure got so great he couldn’t ignore it.  The other candidate in the race was notably absent.  On an issue as important as this, we deserve better.”

Other issues Agopian will be focusing on are:

  • Reducing Neighborhood Crime
  • Protecting Home Property Values
  • Supporting School & Education
  • Expediting Traffic & Transportation Improvements

Antioch Unified School District Board of Trustees – 2004 to Present

Antioch Economic Development Commission – 2002 to 2005

Mello-Roos Board – 2007 to Present

Corporate Membership Antioch Chamber of Commerce

Antioch Unified School District Budget Advisory Committee – 2003 to 2005

PTA Member – Antioch High School & Deer Valley High School

 

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What’s good for roads may be good for schools

In legislation modeled after California’s popular transportation half-cent sales tax programs, state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, has introduced a bill that would let school districts into the action.

SB 1430 would permit two or more contiguous local school districts (K-12) within a county to form an education finance district and ask voters to tax themselves for a specific set of projects and programs. Potential taxes include sales, telephone or other utilities, parcel taxes or vehicle license fees.

The idea is similar to the half-cent transportation sales tax that voters have repeatedly embraced in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and elsewhere. The major difference is that transportation plans require two-thirds voter approval; this one calls for a simple majority.

Today, individual school districts can ask voters for parcel tax money but it requires two-thirds voter approval and bonds require 55 percent. (Statement corrected at 9:02 p.m. on 2/28/08.)

While voters generally dislike tax increases, they have been persuaded over the years to pass local measures earmarked for local projects and programs. Nearly half of California’s public investment in transportation now comes from local sales taxes and tolls.

“School districts could join together in a program that provides local accountability,” Torlakson said in an interview in his Sacramento office on Wednesday.

On the other hand, transportation interests may resist opening the door to education — always a high priority with voters — in what has been a relatively successful if hard-fought source of cash for road expansions, pothole money and public transit service.

What are the chances this bill will ever be signed into law?

It’s hard to say. The Legislature will be preoccupied for months as it copes with a gaping budget deficit.

But Torlakson chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and after eight years in the Senate and four in the Assembly, he has many friends. Known for his persistence, he could also keep trying if he is successful in his planned 2010 election for state superintendent of schools.

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Prison receivership audit: What’s the big deal?

The headlines make it sound like a scandal: “Audit finds prison receiver paid himself $52,000 a month,” “Spending by prison care overseer questioned,” “Audit pans prison receiver spending.” Even the milder ones — “Ex-prison healthcare receiver’s staff was well paid” — seem to imply shadyness.

But after taking a look at the Inspector General’s report on how the California Prison Health Care Receivership was spending its money, I’m still a little puzzled as to what the big deal is.

sillen.jpgWas receiver Robert Sillen well-paid? Damn straight he was, and that salary was set by the man who appointed him, Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson — not by Sillen himself. Sillen had run the massive Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System or its forerunner since 1979. He was tremendously well respected among his peers, and Henderson paid what it took to get the right guy for the job.

Were his staffers well-paid? Absolutely, compared to state bureaucrats and even elected officials. But those salaries, like Sillen’s, were directly comparable to what these people — many of them medical professionals with advanced degrees — would earn at equivalent positions in a large health-care system. Part of the reason the prison healthcare system had gone down the tubes in the first place was because it offered abyssmally low salaries and so couldn’t attract and retain enough workers and managers with adequate expertise.

Furthermore, despite today’s breathless headlines, all these salaries were approved by Henderson and were in the public record, widely known and fully reported from the get-go. Sillen in his first bi-monthly report to Henderson, back in July 2006, had estimated the receivership’s salaries would cost $4.6 million in FY 2006-07; the new OIG report finds salaries totaled about $4.89 million for a longer period, April 2006 through June 2007.

The report notes that executive staffers received cash-in-lieu payments to cover their healthcare expenses, and that staffers kept receiving such payments even after they were covered by the receivership’s employee benefit plan. Actually, what they continued to receive was the difference between the cash-in-lieu they had been getting and the value of the benefits for which they’d enrolled — exactly what their court-approved contracts called for, nothing more and nothing less. And even so, Henderson had stopped those payments well before Sillen’s departure and this report.

Some of the stories about the report make a big deal about travel expenses lacking receipts. From the report:

In our sample of lodging expenses, we found that the receivership had failed to require staff members to provide proper support before paying $10,500 in lodging expenses. Therefore, we could not determine whether the charges were appropriate. Similarly, in our limited review of 23 travel-related expenses, we found 11 instances of meal charges that exceeded the receivership’s policy limit or lacked the proper documentation. These expense claims totaled $1,800.

I’m all in favor of government officials keeping proper receipts for their spending, but we’re talking about around $12,000 here — hardly to blame for the state’s $16 billion deficit, I’d say. And don’t assume that spending was improper, either: the report clearly states the audit found no evidence of fraud.

Some stories noted this sentence from the OIG report: “For example, the receiver, Robert Sillen, claimed a February 2007 meal expense of $740 from a Sacramento steakhouse and provided no original receipt, business purpose, or listing of other business guests joining him at the meal.”

But I’m told this tab was for almost three dozen receivership staffers who dined midway through a two-day working retreat — hardly an exorbitant tab for that many people called away from their families for an overnight work engagement.

Honestly, as I read certain state officials’ quotes in today’s stories, I’m reminded that a receivership wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place if the state hadn’t failed so miserably at maintaining minimum standards of care in the prisons, or at correcting those errors once it had lost a massive lawsuit.

What strikes me most about this report and the articles it generates is the political expediency of its timing.

Sillen generally was known as a straight shooter unafraid to steamroll the state’s elected officials and entrenched bureaucracy and to spend whatever it took to bring the prison health-care system up to constitutional snuff — precisely his mandate from Henderson. This indubitably rubbed a lot of people in Sacramento the wrong way, and I must wonder what sort of communications — what sort of pressure — was brought to bear on Henderson in the weeks leading up to Sillen’s dismissal Jan. 23.

“While the current Receiver has successfully used his unique skills and bold, creative leadership style to investigate, confront, and break down many of the barriers that existed at the inception of the Receivership, the second phase of the Receivership demands a substantially different set of administrative skills and style of collaborative leadership,” Henderson wrote in his order axing Sillen.

Fair enough. But perhaps he also knew spending whatever it takes to improve prison health care was no longer palatable to the public in the face of the state’s staggering budget deficit. Or perhaps he just wanted to speed up the process; Henderson has said repeatedly he would like to retire, but not while this receivership is still in progress. We’ll probably never know the whole story.

kelso.jpgSillen’s replacement is J. Clark Kelso, a Sacramento law professor with a reputation as a “fixer” capable of cleaning up government messes quickly and efficiently; he was tapped to lead the state Insurance Department after Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned amid scandal in 2000, and later was chosen as California’s Chief Information Officer in order to whip a dysfunctional state IT operation into shape.

I hear Kelso’s first act was to tell receivership staffers that instead of Sillen’s long view — a decade-long plan to build a culture of constitutionally adequate health care — the new goal would be to do it fast and cheap, and return control to the state within four years. Many of those staffers were subsequently pushed out the door.

This report gave Kelso an opportunity to explain the cuts and changes he has made already, and that’s fine. But while we’re discussing all of this information we already knew, we don’t seem to be hearing anything yet about what’s being done now and in coming months to improve prison health care.

Sillen had increased pay for prison doctors; overhauled the awful prison pharmacy system; completely renovated San Quentin’s emergency room as a pilot project for other prisons; and far more. Let’s hope Kelso has similar goals in mind — not just cutting office costs — because that’s what it’ll take to meet California’s legal and moral obligations in prison helath care. Let’s hope this report and the spin that’s being put on it aren’t a smokescreen for a u-turn away from real progress.

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California government stalls on information highway

California is the epi-center of the high-tech universe, right?

Not so in the Capitol, where the press has almost no access to the Internet. Instead, reporters must rely on sketchy cell connections from inside the thick-walled chambers.

But a colleague of mine, Steve Geissinger, who works for MediaNews and this newspaper in its Sacramento Bureau, said today that a state lawmaker wants to help solve a complaint by reporters about a lack of Internet access in the state Capitol.

The legislator, who asked not to be identified before an agreement is reached, believes that the deficit-plagued state should not bear the cost, or at least the whole expense, of providing adequate Internet access for news gathering.

Geissinger, also the president of the Capitol Correspondents Association of California, said that perhaps the state and the CCAC, through fundraising, could forge a 50-50 deal with California, which lags behind many other states in the vital area.

The following is a letter CCAC sent Capitol officials yesterday:

From: Steve Geissinger, president, Capitol Correspondents Association of CA

To: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Speaker of the Assembly, Mr. President pro Tem of the Senate

Re: Response to reporters’ complaints about lack of Internet access in the Legislature

CCAC Board Member Jim Miller prepared this comprehensive briefing for the Board of Directors of the Legislature-mandated CCAC, which voted to request that the Governor’s Office, the Senate and the Assembly attempt to solve the problem. Any consideration you can give the matter, even in these lean fiscal times, would greatly serve the public interest.

The briefing:

“California is behind many other states in providing wireless access at the state Capitol, according to a review by the Capitol Correspondents Association of California.

At a time when wireless networks are available anywhere from libraries to Laundromats, the Capitol in the home state of Silicon Valley lacks any Wi-Fi hot spots open to the public.

Reporters who want to file from the Capitol have limited options.

They can tap out stories on BlackBerries.

Another approach is paying to use an aircard with a laptop computer. Reporters can check e-mail, file stories, read the wire – anything they would normally do at their desks. An aircard relies on a cell-phone signal. Unfortunately, the Capitol’s thick walls hamper cell-phone signals and users sometimes get kicked off, particularly in committee rooms.

In the Senate, some reporters use the computers on the press desks to write and file a story through Internet e-mail accounts such as gmail or yahoo. There is no way, though, for a reporter to connect to their editorial system.

The same goes for computers in the Assembly press bay, where firewalls also limit Internet use.

Not all California government buildings are Wi-Fi wastelands.

The Cal-EPA building offers free wireless. As part of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Broadband Initiative, the Department of General Services has create pilot Wi-Fi sites at the Zig, the Office of State Printing, the Secretary of State’s Office, the State Museum, and the Library and Courts Building.

There has been talk over the years about also bringing Wi-Fi to the Capitol, but nothing is imminent, said department spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Cost is a hurdle at a time when the state confronts an estimated $14.5 billion shortfall.

Creating a wireless network in the Capitol would require extensive wiring, signal amplifiers, and access points, said Sohrab Mansourian, the Assembly’s IT expert. “It’s a project,” he said.

Another concern is online security. Officials worry that an open Wi-Fi network in the Capitol would be vulnerable to hacking and other problems.

Many statehouses elsewhere offer at least some level of Internet access to members of the media and other visitors. Here is a sampling of those, based on information provided by members of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors:

Connecticut: Wireless access is free in the Capitol.

Florida – The press has wireless access in both houses.

Georgia – The state provides wireless in the press areas of the both legislative chambers, and across the street at the press offices.

Hawaii – Wireless access is free in the Capitol’s public areas and in committee rooms.

Kansas – Wi-Fi was added as part of a recent Capitol renovation process. Users must get a user name and a password from the state’s legislative services division.

Louisiana – There is no Wi-Fi. There are several Internet hookups for the press. There also are three computes available for use by the public or press who don’t have assigned offices.

Maine – There has been a Wi-Fi system in the state capitol for six years.

Michigan – There is free Wi-Fi service for the press and the public in both the House and Senate, including in committee rooms across the street from the capitol.

Missouri: The Senate provides free wireless that works well in the chamber and adequately on most of the Senate side of the building. The House charges $150 per year for wireless access on its side of the building, which works well throughout the House side.

Nebraska – The state installed a wireless network in the Capitol last year. The press has access with a password in the (one-house) legislative chamber and all hearing rooms. One area is available for the public.

Oregon – There has been free wireless access since fall 2006.

Pennsylvania – Wi-Fi is available to the public in several hearing and briefing rooms.

South Carolina – The statehouse has free wireless access for everyone.

Texas – The Senate chamber has Wi-Fi, as do the budget committee meeting rooms in both houses. The House lacks wireless, but there are half a dozen ethernet connections for reporters to use.

Virginia – There is Wi-Fi service for both the press and the public.

Washington – The state has provided wireless Internet for free to anyone in or around the Capitol for about two years.

West Virginia – The state charges about $200 a year for Wi-Fi access in the Capitol.”

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Schwarzenegger, GOP disagree on energy bill

The House today voted 236-182 to pass the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008, which would — among other things — end tax subsidies to Big Oil and invest that money instead in clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it “will only make matters worse by raising taxes and setting the table for even higher prices at the pump,” which is both “unacceptable” and “irresponsible.”

Don Young, the House Natural Resources Committee’s ranking Republican, said it’s “a true indication of how out of touch they (Democrats) are with the needs of our nation… It makes no sense whatsoever.”

And Jim McCrery, the Ways and Means Committee’s ranking Republican, said it “completely ignores reality” and “will make our economy more dependent on foreign sources of energy… This is worse than no solution at all.”

Here’s what their fellow Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had to say:

schwarzenegger2.jpgI commend Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of Congress who worked hard to pass this critical legislation that will allow us to continue investing in our nation’s renewable energy supplies – we need as much clean energy in our resource mix as possible. With our aggressive environmental goals, unprecedented energy portfolio standards and booming ‘green economy,’ California has a vital stake in legislation to be passed by Congress and approved by President Bush.

A long-term solar tax credit is critical because of the time needed to bid, permit, engineer and build solar projects. Today’s action will help California in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions and our dependence on imported fuel sources. I urge the U.S. Senate and the President to quickly pass this legislation.

Wow, this sounds a lot like saying that, “At a time when our economy is struggling, this bill will provide savings to consumers, protect the environment, create jobs and make our nation stronger by ending our dependence on foreign oil.” Or, that “(e)nding our dependence on foreign oil and using renewable energy to help fight global warming will make our nation stronger.” Or, that the bill will “put us on a path toward energy security and energy independence in a fiscally responsible way.”

But those latter words of praise came from Democrats — House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez; Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton; and Hosue Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, respectively.